A masculine build-up to the Ind-Pak cricket match

This post benefited from feedback from Thomas Manuel.

Every time I watch an ad about the upcoming India-Pakistan men’s cricket match, as part of the ongoing T20 World Cup in Australia, I’m reminded of Cutler Beckett’s line in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series: “It’s just good business.”

Beyond the field, there has been new animosity between the Indian and the Pakistani cricket boards, with the former having said that the Indian men’s cricket team won’t travel to Pakistan for the 2023 Asia Cup. But even beyond the administrators of cricket and their realpolitik machinations, there are Star Sports and Pepsi.

Star Sports has been running an ad depicting life in a fictitious town called “Dardnapur” (Hindi for ‘no-pain town’) peopled with many men of considerable strength, capable of lifting motorcycles, having their fingers slammed by a closing door with nary a wince, and so forth. But when India lost to Pakistan at the Asia Cup, as a young boy narrates in the video, these men were sent to tears. So, the boy says in an address to the Indian men’s team, “Right this wrong, win the match and end the wait.”

(The ad benefits from an ambiguity: India’s loss to Pakistan contributed to the end of its last Asia Cup campaign, so “ending the wait” could apply equally to beating Pakistan and winning a major tournament. On the flip side, at the ad’s end, the screen shows illustrated faces of the two team captains, Rohit Sharma and Babar Azam, gesturing to each other in an aggressive way.)

In the Pepsi ad, India’s frontline pacer Jasprit Bumrah askes if viewers have the guts to watch the upcoming match against Pakistan from the PoV of a camera fit into the batter’s stumps (a.k.a. the ‘stumpcam’), followed by the ad spelling out something about a QR code to be found in Pepsi bottles.

Obviously women and people of other genders are welcome to share in these sentiments but neither ad features any women and there has been no indication that either of these brands – Star Sports or Pepsi – is interested in advertising to women in this matter. Instead, both brands are investing in associating the match with shows of strength and guts, an inescapable parallel to the violence in Kashmir as well as to the fact that India-Pakistan face-offs in the cricketing sphere represent one of the few remaining ways in which the two countries directly compete for victory.

There have been a few articles in ESPN and similar outlets about the Indian and the Pakistani men’s cricket teams trying to relax, stay away from the hype and focus on playing the game (see here, e.g.). But everyone else – from the administrators to the people at large, mediated by advertisements of the sort described above – are either pushing or are being pushed the triumphalist narrative that the match is a proxy for India being “better” than Pakistan, to project India as a highly competitive and – assuming India will win the match – tough country. Even the ICC is partly to blame as it starts major tournaments by having India and Pakistan face each other.

All this brings to mind the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’, coined by various sociologists in the 1980s and which has come to encompass the following features, among others: shows of achievement, use of physical force and heterosexuality – all of which have been put on display in the two ads and in the actions of the Indian cricket board.

Even “frontiersmanship” has raised its head: according to Wiktionary, it stands for “the craft or skill of being a frontiersman, of succeeding in settling a frontier” – which in this case is relevant to the regions of ‘Pakistan-administered Kashmir’ in western Kashmir and Aksai Chin in the eastern portion, over which India has disputes with Pakistan and China, respectively.

The person who announced India wouldn’t go to Pakistan for next year’s Asia Cup was Jay Shah, who has three identities here that matter: he is BCCI secretary, president of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) and son of Union home minister Amit Shah. Shah junior said he was making the announcement as the president of the ACC, yet it’s laughable that the decision was motivated by anything other than the Indian government’s grouses with Pakistan in Kashmir.